John Coyne will be one of the five published writers to lead panel discussions at the September RPCV Writing Workshop in Maryland. Read his short story below.
Novelist, Short Story Writer, Poet, Editor
by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962-64)
It was not easy keeping in touch. There were so many demands and hundreds of ways that I was requested. The telephone and mail certainly, but also telegrams, meetings, and midnight visits. At all hours the doorbell rang and I asked through the keyhole: who are you and what do you want?
“My name is Michael. I’m a friend of Sherri’s. She said to see you. That you could help.”
I unlocked the lock and opened the door. I have been robbed and mugged this way but what else could I do? I only wanted to help.
I had one wall of filing cabinets: steel, cardboard, makeshift files in boxes. They were all jammed with correspondence. I classified by name and address VINICK, Richard L., 16th Street, N.W. The name is cross referenced to subjects: Lonely Hearts, Money, Travel, Pets. I had 2,249 such categories.
At first, sitting at my desk of plywood and milk cartons, I typed out the replies on my Olivetti Lettera 32. It took me most mornings, then longer after the phone calls and visitors began to arrive.
Then letters and cards began to accumulate. I piled them up in my In Box, a giant galvanized trash can. I kept the excess in green Jiffy bags. I hired a part-time secretary. She was a recent graduate of a speedwriting secretarial school and could type sixty-five words a minute and take dictation.
Now I dictated letters. She sat at my desk: a tiny girl from Rockville, Maryland. She wore her boyfriend’s letter sweater on cold mornings and brought a lunch in a brown bag. Her voice was a whisper, the size of a small bird flying. She sat pencil poised, steno pad ready, while I paced my tiny Adams-Morgan apartment.
Gail was her name and she took the shorthand home and typed the letters there, delivered the finished copy the next day. When she made instant coffee, I re-read the letters and signed them individually. On a good day we could average twenty to twenty-five letters. My letters were long, three and four pages each. Dictating, I was expansive; I had a natural gift for it. I thought in full paragraphs.
The telephone calls I handled well enough myself. I operated three lines into the apartment and had a system for keeping callers on hold. My recorded voice said: “Hello, I’m busy now, but at the tone would you please state your name, telephone number, and your question.”
I bought a telephone speaker so I could move about the apartment as I talked. It was necessary. There were often questions of reference that I had to look up: “. . . What is the capital city of Chad? . . . Where is Henry James’ grave? . . . Who won the 1925 Dempsey-Tunney fight?”
My apartment was filled with dictionaries, directories, research reports, government studies. I had a walk-in closet stacked with GPO documents. My clothes I kept in the bathroom; shirts and suits I hung on the shower curtain bar.
The telephone rang. All night long it rang and woke me from nightmares. I dreamed I was playing tennis and the base lines and net were crowded with people; they waved for my attention, shouted my name. I could hear the cries. The telephone rang like a screaming kettle.
“Hello?” The voice was distant and mumbled.
“Speak up, please, there’s nothing more to worry about.” My voice, I was told, was like hot cocoa. It warmed the person immediately, seeped comfort into the soul.
“A friend of mine gave me your telephone number. She said you could help me. I hope you don’t mind that I called so late.”
Most of my telephone calls began that way. They came from out of the middle of the sad night, lonely and lost people dialing, telephoning from phone booths on the beltway. They had walked through the fog to the white booth glowing on the dark highway like a small, safe shrine. My name and phone number has been spread by thousands of grateful souls, scribbled on vacant walls. I had found it myself on the urinals in Union Station. Gail whispered that she first saw it in the girl’s locker room of her high school gym.
All night long the phone rang like an alarm until Washington went off to sleep. Then early again, before six a.m., a woman in tears screaming at me. “I want a divorce, goddamnit! I’m going crazy with this man. I want OUT!”
I did my best. I calmed and smoothened and comforted the anguished. I reassured and informed and instructed. I preached and gospelized. I encouraged and gave faith.
And then it was beyond me. The research and volume of mail and telephone calls. I couldn’t keep up. New kinds of questions began to arrive. Questions of a biophysical nature. They demanded a scientific background and more learning. I was not schooled in questions of psychopharmacology and utilitarianism. I had no anthropological perspective or understanding of ethical issues.
It had all begun simply. A girl on the subway. We were sitting together, and she asked, “How do I get to Gallery Place?” An easy question. One word would have done it. A shake of my head if I hadn’t wanted to be bothered. But I live alone and have no friends.
I had a Metro map and showed her the route. She would need to change at Metro Center I told her. I am very good with directions. I take my time and speak slowly. The girl was a stranger to Washington, and she smiled with her brown eyes. A pretty girl with a fat face. She thanked me profusely. I had been the first kind person she had met in the city. Washington was too big she said, and we talked of her hometown, Pottsville, Pennsylvania.
“John O’Hara,” I said.
She was impressed. “It is a little known fact,” she answered, proud of her hometown and impressed with my knowledge of subway systems and fiction writers.
“I collect information,” I said. “It’s a hobby.”
We reached Metro Center, and I pressed my card into her hand.
I had thousands of such cards. They gave my name and address, my telephone number. They told people to call me at any time of the day or night. For a time I travelled around the city on buses and left my card everywhere: churches, near the poor boxes; in the lounges of National Airport; on seats in subway cars. I left them where people gathered and waited.
“My girlfriend said she met you on the subway and that you were very helpful.” Another shy voice. “I’m looking for work and was hoping. . . .”
“Yes! Yes!” I bubbled into the phone. I was ready. I had the resources and the references. I had the Post want ads and the Dictionary of Occupations from the Labor Department. I had names and addresses and could write glowing resumes. I began.
She found work immediately. The very next day. On her first interview she was hired as a Hot Shop waitress. She was gratified and told her customers. Others telephoned. It continued and multiplied and quadrupled. Then the visits.
I had no office or reception room. They came day after day and sat on the stairs. I live on the fourth floor and the line stretched to the street.
The tenants of the building complained, but my visitors were polite. They sat only one on a step and did not block the stairs. They did not litter. Some listened to music while they waited, but they used earphones and never danced on the landings.
I had visiting hours two days a week and by appointment only, but I ran overtime. We live in a world where it is difficult to keep a schedule. Life is not nine to five. I could not solve everyone’s problems within the hour. I held hands, and we shared a joint. I listened to them sing their songs. We talked and reminisced. People like to talk. They are articulate and have something to say. They are not fools. I paid attention to them and nodded reassuringly.
I became notorious in the neighborhood: this man with strangers at his doorway. No one had spoken to me before; they did not care about me. But now I was famous in Adams-Morgan and throughout the city. I was written up in the Style Section of the Washington Post and appeared on Panorama.
People mailed me money and told me to continue the good work. I opened a savings account and established a non-profit foundation. Publishers wrote and asked me to write my life story. I was invited to the White House and met Amy Carter, shook hands with the President’s wife.
Then a woman telephoned. She had a voice as lovely as a telephone operator. She praised me for my good work and offered to help. She was in touch with computers and networks of information. She talked glowingly of retrieval systems and new kinds of technology.
Yes, I told her. I could see where my efforts were failing. Already I was months behind in my correspondence. I couldn’t even manage to see everyone who came knocking at my door.
“We’ll increase your effectiveness,” she said. “Your productivity will jump!” She was sure and brilliant.
Their organization had form letters, she explained, that were as good as the original. They had a device that wrote my signature. They had 33 rpms in mono and stereo. My calm voice giving advice and self-help on tapes and records.
I could write books and have them translated into foreign languages. Had I thought much about the Chinese, she asked. No, I confessed I hadn’t, but I had been so busy. Yes, she understood, but now her organization would help. It all made good common sense, I had to agree.
My telephone calls were transferred first. The phone stopped ringing in the middle of the night. There was a strange new quiet in the apartment. I enjoyed the silence and got my first full night of sleep.
A switchboard had been arranged and a tape of my voice. I talked to strangers as if I were there in person. Questions were asked, and the computers were activated. My voice gave the data and advice. I could call the exchange and ask a question, listen to myself and hear the confident answer. It was thrilling.
The stacks of mail disappeared from my door and the mailman talked to me again. I had to let Gail go, but she understood. I tried to find her work and couldn’t, but she telephoned my machine one morning and they found her employment that very same day. She was hired by a warehouse company off the beltway. I had never heard of the firm. “But it was your voice,” she whispered. The wonder of it all.
I expanded my visiting hours, but no one needed the extra time. People telephoned from the phone booth downstairs and received immediate answers. They did not need to climb the four flights to talk with me.
Now I had time to think and reflect. I went for long midday walks and attended the new movies in town. I visited the National Zoo and hung around DuPont Circle. I watched daytime quiz shows and listened to all-news radio stations. I roamed the downtown streets and smiled at tourists on the Mall. I waited every day for the mailman, but he had only third-class mail and letters stamped Addressee Unknown.
Then last month after midnight my telephone rang suddenly. It was the first call for me in five months, and I grabbed the receiver. It was the wrong number. A man wanted to talk to Sara. I said I didn’t know her but I would help him find her number. I hurried for the directory, but he hung up before I could reply. The silence in the apartment trembled my hands.
Published in The Berkley Showcase III (1981)
John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962-64) has published 28 books of fiction and non-fiction. He edited the first collection of travel essays written by RPCVs entitled Going Up Country (Scribner’s 1994). In 1999 he edited and published with Curbstone Press a collection of short stories by Peace Corps writers entitled Living on the Edge. He also created and edited three paperback books of essays written by RPCVs and published by the Peace Corps: To Touch the World (1995); At Home in the World (1996); The Great Adventure (1997). His Peace Corps novel, Long Ago and Far Away was published in 2014. Today he is an adjunct professor in the MFA Creative Writing program of National University of California and the editor of www.peacecorpsworldwide.org He is also the founder of the non-profit Peace Corps Fund that is funding this Writer’s Workshop.